LAKE CHARLES — In his first address since winning election, Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards told teachers Monday that he entered the race because he wanted to improve education, but his first focus will be on the state budget.
“The budget is going to be about $1.2 billion short: that has to be our first priority,” Edwards said.
He told the annual convention of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, one of the organized labor groups representing school employees, that he wouldn’t ban vouchers and wouldn’t close charter schools as his election opponents repeatedly claimed during the campaign.
But he would insist on greater accountability of charter schools. He would press for allowing school boards in districts that are not failing to decide for themselves whether to allow charter schools, which are outside the regular administration to allow for greater flexibility in teaching policies. He said he wants the voucher system to be used only by low-income students in failing schools.
Edwards told the teachers the biggest change they would see in his administration would be greater access to the governor, as well as an open dialogue on what changes were needed and how they would be made.
“You’re going to have a partner in the Governor’s Office,” Edwards said, adding he attended public schools and married a teacher.
He reiterated his desire to get rid of Education Superintendent John White.
Speaking with reporters after his speech, Edwards said he is aware the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which actually hires and fires the superintendent, presently is composed of White supporters.
“We’ll see,” he said when asked how he would deal with the BESE super majority that, at least for the time being, opposes his wishes on this issue.
His speech at the teacher union’s annual convention in the Golden Nugget Casino complex was his first official address as governor-elect. The union went all in supporting Edwards in the election he won handily Saturday.
The convention always has been an early stop for governors coming into office. Bobby Jindal in 2007 made his first official speech as governor-elect to the Louisiana Federation of Teachers convention.
Though not their first address after being elected, a series of governors have addressed the convention, including Kathleen Blanco, a former teacher, and Mike Foster.
But Edwards’ speech was different from the addresses past governors-elect have made. It had a celebratory feel as the teachers union had lined up behind Edwards early and were some of his most ardent supporters.
Edwards entered the ballroom to the theme from “Rocky” and was immediately mobbed by the union members attending the luncheon. He stopped to hug teachers and the dozen state legislators who attended the event.
Three weeks ago, Edwards could walk in and out of campaign events, barely attracting attention. This time, progress was slowed by dozens of teachers wanting to take selfies with the governor-elect.
Brigid Higgins, who teaches music at the Metairie Academy for Advanced Studies, said that after eight years of being ignored and vilified by Gov. Bobby Jindal and his administration, she studied up on the candidates.
“It wasn’t so much the policies, but it’s the dignity and (Jindal’s) lack of respect, as if we weren’t looked at as professionals any more,” Higgins said.
She hadn’t heard of Edwards six months ago but studied and found him a better choice for her than U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the Republican opponent who lives near her school. She spoke up Edwards to her friends, family and neighbors, distributed yard signs and knocked on doors. It was a difficult task in heavily GOP Jefferson Parish, particularly among conservative family members who were occasionally blunt. But Higgins said she was able to persuade many of them to cast their first vote for a Democrat.
“The world heard us,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association. “We’ve made a huge turn down the path of truly reclaiming the promise of public education.”
“You will finally have a partner in Baton Rouge,” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, congratulating the Louisiana members for their work helping elect Edwards.
“The good news will be that Gov. Jindal won’t be governor any longer,” Ricker added, provoking loud and prolonged applause.
Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said in an interview he doesn’t expect Edwards to modify Jindal-backed programs that have proven controversial with educators, such as vouchers and charter schools.
“How do you expect him to split the Red Sea?” Monaghan said. “The first priority is going to be the budget; that’s an education issue, too. We got to give him the support he needs.”
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